North Korea has not moved an inch from its conception of denuclearisation at the Singapore Summit. More substantive progress requires ending the obsession for complete and irreversible denuclearisation.
The Singapore Summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has come and gone, with very little of substance or very little new agreed upon. That certainly applies to the much discussed possibility of agreement on the terms of North Korean denuclearisation. In many respects the summit could be described as a snapchat summit, the primary function of which was to provide a photo opportunity for both leaders.
For Donald Trump, to no small degree, the summit is another spectacular that keeps attention upon his person and which diverts the public from the damage he is inflecting upon US society. The latter is important given the 2008 mid-term Congressional elections. For Kim Jong-un the imagery elevates the diplomatic status of North Korea, and his own it must be added, whilst also providing political ballast for South Korea and China as they move to improve relations with Pyongyang.
The snapchat summit didn’t end in acrimony, that’s a plus, but a snapchat summit isn’t designed to break up in acrimony as that would defeat the purpose. That is a point well worth bearing in mind. On the substantiative level the very brief statement signed by the two leaders, which is hardly comprehensive despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, contained four key points:
1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified
As can be seen point three, the one covering denuclearisation, is a reaffirmation of the denuclearisation provision of the Panmunjom Declaration which was
South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, South and North Korea shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard. South and North Korea agreed to actively seek the support and cooperation of the international community for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula
Notice that is North Korea reaffirming the Panmunjom Declaration, which encapsulated North Korea’s capacious conception of denuclearisation which consists of a step-by-step process of reciprocal actions in the Korean peninsula and its vicinity. Point Three is not a statement of US agreement with that conception of denuclearisation. This means that North Korea did not move an inch toward the prevailing US position of complete, verified, and irreversible dismantlement and nor does Point Three constitute Washington’s abandonment of it. Nor do the first two provisions formally commit the United States to a peace treaty nor to sanctions relief.
Quite a few declarations of more substance have been agreed to throughout the long history of the Korean nuclear crisis.
Point Three of the Singapore statement is consistent with the nuclear weapons specific resolutions of the April plenum of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party, which implies that North Korean denuclearisation is to be viewed in a wider international disarmament context. That is, Kim Jong-un did not reverse the policy of the Party with the flick of a pen at Singapore. That suggests any significant change would need to be ratified at a subsequent Central Committee plenum. Since the April plenum Pyongyang at the summit meetings with China, South Korea and the United States has toed the Party line.
The Singapore summit, I tend to think, shows how the focus on denuclearisation in the western public sphere distorts understanding and progress. The summit has reinforced my own view that substantive progress toward peace and stability is best achieved through defacto recognition of North Korea’s minimal nuclear deterrent through a nuclear freeze agreement, for example capping fissile material production and ballistic missile testing, whilst both parties remain formally committed to denuclearisation. Achieving strategic stability through mutual and balanced conventional force reductions first is a sensible approach because it contributes to a wider peace and takes away the features of the military balance that underpin credible escalation scenarios.
But our obsession with denuclearisation leads us to look for and demand complete and irreversible dismantlement now.
I think that the talks are important in the sense that diplomatic discussion, even of a relatively vapid sort, is better than conflict but we must be aware that so long as we are committed to snapchat summitry and unrealistic demands for denuclearisation the process can lead to, rather than prevent, catastrophic outcomes.
I am sure that more details will emerge over the coming days, and I hope to be in the position to offer more commentary and analysis.